For those familiar with my methods, you know that my mantra is: Listen to your body. Meaning, auto-regulation in your training where you work up to a daily max and using a set of rules, let your body tell you how heavy to lift and for how many sets that day. Don’t force-feed yourself to gain muscle unless you want to gain a lot of fat. Take your time and train in such a manner as to make the body hungry for nutrients. Don’t starve yourself when you want to lose fat unless you want to reduce fat burning, increase the potential for muscle loss, and feel awful in general. I realize that many correlate pain and suffering with results, but it is time to stop trying to force your body into doing what you want it to do, and start cooperating with it instead.
It is also time to realize that this intrinsic relationship is mutual – not only should you listen to your body, but YOU should become a lot more aware of what messages you are giving it. Everything from the type, intensity and volume of training to what nutrients you are feeding it at what time will determine what adaptions you get out of it.
To lose fat you need to create a deficit, so it should be as simple as doing endless hours of cardio to expend as much energy as possible, while eating as little as possible – except the bare necessities of protein to spare muscle and some EFAs for hormones and health. Obviously, that doesn’t really work too well unless you are extremely obese and have sufficient stored fat to cover such a dramatic energy deficit, or for a very short time – generously helped by powerful fat burners and even more potent drugs. The body is a survival machine so it will do everything in its power to keep you alive.
Food and diet
I already touched on the subject of diet in a previous blog post, and the most important message was that research shows the genetic response is determined not only by the calorie intake but also the ratio of carbs, proteins and fats. A balance of 30-40% of each macronutrient seemed to be the best, at least for the sedentary and slightly overweight people (and rats). The various low-carb approaches so popular these days will also work great, but – and here’s the understatement of the year – I’m not a big fan of these approaches for leaner people with a higher activity level or for a lifestyle approach for long-term health. I prefer more carbs the leaner you are and the more high-intensity training (or overall volume) you do. Lower carbs and higher fats are fine if you sit around all day and do brief low volume weight training such as HIT, and low-moderate intensity (“please kill me now”-boring) treadmill for cardio, or if your bodyfat isn’t in the single digits yet.
So balance carbs according to your needs and the body will store them in muscle to fuel workouts, don’t believe anyone telling you that carbs will make you fat. Or fats for that matter. Nothing will make you fat unless you eat a lot more than your body needs, so the culprit is the caloric surplus – unless you’re creating a stimulus which tells the body to partition the extra calories into muscle building and recovery. That changes everything.
Protein sounds simple on paper – just eat enough of it at each meal. Sort of. You also have to consider the quality of proteins. We know that whey will impact muscle protein synthesis to a larger degree than it’s milky counterpart casein, and both of them – especially combined – are superior to soy protein. Even if you double up on the soy protein the effect is still better with milk proteins. I would argue that humans thrive on animal-derived proteins instead of vegetable-derived, and research supports it, but I won’t take it further than that as vegetarians do not easily forgive and forget. And I wouldn’t want to be chased down with a sharpened cucumber just because I told you to drink milk/whey+casein shakes or load up on meat and eggs. Additionally, a higher protein intake increases satiety and TEF (Thermic Effect of Feeding) so replacing the same amount of calories from carbs or fats with proteins will make the body spend more calories to process them.
Fats also tell your body different things, it seems as if society is catching up to the fact that saturated fats aren’t the silent killer as science is showing us how components of animal fats can be very beneficial to humans. Whole milk build more muscle than skim milk even when the servings were isocaloric – i.e. they increased the skim milk serving to match the calories of the whole milk serving, and even with less proteins and carbs the whole milk outperformed the skim milk. Coconut oil contains 50% medium chain triglycerides (MCT) and these fats are actually oxidized for energy instead of stored in fat cells. And also contains some of the saturated fats believed to be involved in muscle growth (also found in whole milk). Omega-3 fats (DHA, EPA and DPA) tells the fat cells to store less fat and release more. Omega-6 fats found in many vegetable oils induce inflammation and increases fat storage compared to the omega-3 and omega-9s.
So you see, it’s not just all about the calories, but what you – or rather the foods you are eating – is telling your body to do.
I think this is where most people are really confused, and where the body is receiving mixed messages. Confusing the muscles. Which according to a lot of personal trainers is the key to success, right? So why aren’t their clients getting stronger and leaner, and more importantly: why isn’t the trainer lean and muscular if this was true? Because it doesn’t work that way. Well, not the way most people apply it, at least. Read yesterdays blog post to learn to what I think about muscle confusion… A planned and strategic change in certain variables will have a profound and positive effect, but trying to make your body good at what is essentially conflicting training goals is what I refer to as: Jack of All Trades, Master of None. Try to be good at everything and you will end up being mediocre. Crossfit is a perfect example of that, but I already pissed off the vegetarians so I won’t go there. Today.
Tell your body to build its tolerance to long and slow enduring miles via a properly applied long-distance running program and you will be a good marathon runner. Tell your body to build large muscles by, and I quote myself from yesterday: Lift a sufficiently heavy load, sufficiently many times (sets and reps), sufficiently often (frequency) to make the muscle adapt and grow larger and stronger. Tell your body to become faster by doing short sprints with full recovery, overspeed methods, low rep and explosive training with some strategic plyometrics and agility drills – and you will become a better track & field athlete, sprinter, fighter or attacker in soccer or basketball.
So why do some people insist on trying to train like all of the above and end up like some sort of super-human hybrid runner/fighter/bodybuilder? Long slow miles build endurance champions, but they look completely different from sprinters, don’t you think? Because the first is telling their muscle to become more energetically efficient, i.e. smaller and with increased oxidative capacity, strengthening the “aerobic engine”. The latter requires muscles displaying highly powerful and explosive contractions and developed ATP-CP system since a race only lasts for 10-40 seconds depending on the distance. A typical workout for a sprinter is 10-15 repeats from 10-100 meters with full recovery (walking) of 2-3 minutes in between. Far from the 60+ minutes of treadmill or spinning classes done by 90% of girls in gyms around the world. Yet, who wouldn’t want to look like Usain Bolt or our own Christina Vukicevic? In fact, I know guys who would want to look like Christina Vukicevic.
Most of you reading this blog is probably interested in a leaner and more muscular physique, so why would you confuse your muscles with the training of a middle- to long-distance runner? And this, I think, applies to girls in particular as you are the ones most prone to think that it’s all about the caloric burn. Since the heart rate monitor is telling you that 30 minutes of cardio burnt 200kcals, and since a magazine article told you that low/moderate-intensity cardio burns the most fat, you should go for 1-2hrs if you REALLY want to burn fat. Right? Wrong, and it’s actually been shown that the female body can preferentially mobilize fat from the upper body and store them right back in their lower bodies. There are probably evolutionary reasons why women’s bodies are extremely sensitive to lots of cardio and lack of food, and yet they are the most adamant at doing exactly that. Long-duration cardio directly inhibits muscle growth, so you’re sabotaging your efforts of “toning” your butt, too. But hey, if you really want a skinny-fat ass and legs, keep doing what you’re doing.
Sure, you may burn more fat DURING the session itself by doing low- and moderate intensity cardio, but what happens the other 22-23 hours of the day is more important. There’s a reason why most long-term studies show high-intensity intervals to be superior for fat loss, even if it’s mainly glycolytic in nature and burns less calories on an acute basis it will tell your body to burn more fat for energy while resting and recovering – while the carbs you eat will go to refilling muscle glycogen. Not making you fat.
I’m rambling, so let me get to the point: Short and intense activity will tell your body to grow larger, stronger muscles, and to become (cliché alert) A Lean, Mean Fat Burning Machine.
My favourite types of cardio
1. sprint intervals, where you go hard (90-100% effort) for 5-15 seconds, then easy for 20-60 seconds. 5-10 minutes of this 2-3 times per week. Including a 5 minute warm-up and 10-15 minute cool-down (easy walking) total duration will be in the 20-30 minute range. No, I don’t recommend Tabata intervals for most people. There are more interesting ways of killing yourself. Activities: pushing a car across a parking lot (put it in neutral and release the parking brake, stupid), hill sprints, prowler/sled pushing or dragging, elliptical or rower set at high resistance, Airdyne bike, barbell/dumbell/kettlebell complexes, heavy bag work for fighters.
2. tempo intervals, where you go at a slightly lower intensity (around 70-80%) for 30-60 seconds, easy for 90-120 seconds. Total duration 20-30 minutes. Think elliptical, rower, Airdyne, skipping rope, track running (football/soccer stadium preferred), but I can allow a limited amount of high incline treadmill running.
3. I generally don’t recommend long duration moderate intensity cardio, but for recovery purposes or if you’re sedentary during the day – a brisk walk for 20-60 minutes is great and can be done on a daily basis since it is low intensity in nature (heart rate range of 110-140bpm). I recommend this option exclusively (and no intervals) if you’re already doing 4-5 high volume weight training workouts like some bodybuilders and powerlifters. Adding intervals to this would probably destroy you.
The infamous 4×4 intervals? Overhyped, but sure – if you’re a heart patient, or competitive athlete in sports requiring different physical qualities – but only for certain phases of the year, and not to the exclusion of more sport-specific training. For physique-, fitness- and strength athletes – rarely, if ever.
So I guess you’re asking, what is the Perfect Program? Again, context…but generally – and these guidelines obviously do NOT apply to the endurance weenies:
Off-season, for explosive type sports and for gaining strength and lean muscle:
2-4 cardio sessions per week, usually no more than 1-2 x 20 minutes sessions of intervals, 1-2 sessions of brisk walking for 20-30 minutes. If you’re doing 3 short workouts of weights per week, you can get away with more cardio, if that’s your cup of tea. If your workouts resemble Arnold’s or Ronnie Coleman’s, you probably shouldn’t do any cardio at all. You should also slap yourself in the face and rethink your training routine, as it’s not going to work without superior genetics and a boatload of pharmaceuticals. But I digress.
For fat loss or contest prep:
3-6 cardio sessions per week, of which sprint intervals no more than 1-2 days per week, tempo intervals another 2-3 days per week, 20-30 minutes total duration per session, and watch for signs of overtraining/overreaching. Doing too much high-intensity work when your recovery is already compromised by a calorie deficit is a seriously stupid idea. I let the diet do the majority of the work, but that definitely doesn’t mean I will cut calories hard. If you never dieted for a contest before, allow yourself double the time you THINK you need – i.e. most first-time competitors should aim for 20+ weeks of slow and steady dieting to get really lean. Then you won’t have to kill yourself with PSMF-type diets and 2 hour cardio sessions because you’re not leaning out as fast as you thought you would. I will often recommend reducing leg training frequency down to 1x/week as well.
So a typical training week deep into contest prep, only 4-6 weeks from competition date – and this ONLY an example, not a template to copy indiscriminantly:
Morning: Tempo intervals, 5min warm-up, 30secs high intensity, 90secs low intensity for 20mins, 5 min cool-down. 30min total duration. .
Afternoon: Lighter chest, laterals for shoulders, some triceps work
Sprint intervals – 5 min warm-up, 10 x go hard for 10 secs, easy for 40 secs. Easy walking for 12 minutes. Total duration 25 minutes.
40min brisk walk in the morning
40min brisk walk in the morning.
Afternoon: Lats and biceps
Morning: Tempo intervals, same as Monday
Afternoon: Chest and back – horizontal pulling focus (rows and deadlifts)
20-30 min brisk walk and easy mobility work or rest
20-30min brisk walk in the morning (or I might have someone do sprint intervals on the same day as legs)
Conclusion: Stop confusing your body, and start telling it what you really want.